Home for Ramadan?

Clinton's air war isn't likely to knock out Saddam Hussein.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Ever since military pilots flew lazy-eights over the muddy trenches during World War I, dropping little bombs from their cockpits by hand, immense claims have been made for the knock-out power of airplanes.

Few of those claims have borne out, however. From World War II, when German war production surged during four years of bombing, to Vietnam, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail added a few lanes despite constant pounding by B-52s, air power has repeatedly demonstrated its limits. The exceptions -- such as the shut-your-mouth hit on Libya's Moammar Gadhaffi -- just prove the rule.

Infantry wins wars. And if history is any guide, the Nintendo-style air spectacular against Iraq won't deliver much of a lasting solution to the menace of Saddam Hussein beyond the booms, bangs and flashes filling TV screens in American living rooms right now. Unless it can get Saddam himself, which is unlikely.

To be sure, Saddam will be hurt. Iraq can't shrug off 200 cruise missile hits every day, more than were fired during the entire 43-day air assault of 1991, with heavy bombers to come. But it's hard to figure how a three-day, home-before-Ramadan air campaign will deliver something that six weeks worth of sustained U.S. bombing failed to produce in 1991. Like the Roadrunner outracing Wile E. Coyote, Saddam merely crawls out of his bunker each time and goes, "Beep-beep." That, as George Bush famously said, cannot be allowed to stand.

So exactly what are this round's bombing aims? From official statements, it's hard to say, since President Clinton virtually emptied his pockets of objectives and laid them out on the table for people to choose. Destroying Iraq's capability to wage chemical and biological war is one aim, he said, although Defense Secretary William Cohen was quick to admit Thursday that such facilities are small, mobile and hard to find. Clinton also said he had to act because his credibility would be at stake -- as if that still existed -- if he ignored Saddam's defiance of United Nations arms inspectors, as he opted to do three times previously.

So it was left to U.S. Army Gen. Henry Shelton, the reluctant-looking chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to point out the obvious with pictures: The goal of the air campaign is to kill Saddam or neuter him permanently by annihilating his security guard, intelligence units and close-in loyal troops. In the tradition of today's rule of never tell people the entire truth, no one will actually admit that the aim is to kill, or as Cohen put it, "assassinate" Saddam. No, no. I guess Clinton and Cohen probably figured people would run screaming from their living rooms if they heard the truth, and maybe they're right. But killing Saddam is clearly the idea, as a direct hit on his daughter's house last night proved.

It failed, in any case. And if the misses continue, Uncle Sam is going to start looking like Inspector Javert in the Arab world, and a sap at home.

"All it's accomplished is to make Saddam lose his fear of the military power of the United States," former UNSCOM inspector David Kaye told Salon on the eve of the aborted attack on Iraq last November. "The attacks have only made him stronger politically, not hurt him militarily or economically."

That's worse than not attacking at all.

Forget the U.S.-funded Iraqi exile opposition, by the way. It's a frequent-flier program for Republican congressmen, who like to visit the exiles' headquarters in London, which is as close as they'll ever get to Baghdad. Every opposition group inside Iraq has been turned into spinach by Saddam.

This time, the Pentagon appears to be taking Kaye's advice "to attack the security forces, the Special Republican Guards, the people who monitor the telephones, the terror apparatus which keeps people in line and his ministers."

Kaye added, "The reason you want to do this is twofold: One, Saddam does worry about survival, and if his security people are seriously injured, Saddam will wonder if he can detect a coup. He'll have to worry about that rather than developing weapons of mass destruction to use against his neighbors."

Indeed, Shelton rolled out aerial reconnaissance photographs that appeared to show the Directorate of Military Intelligence Headquarters in Baghdad and a barracks of the elite Republican Guard were largely reduced to piles of bricks. He said more than 50 separate targets had been hit in the first wave of strikes involving more than 70 U.S. Navy aircraft and more than 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

All of which makes for heady boasts, great television and a potent rush of testosterone for Americans who are feeling yo-yoed.

How long will the air campaign go on? If Saddam is still standing as Ramadan begins and the bombing stops, he'll be stronger than ever. Like the British after the Nazis bombed London, the Russians after Stalingrad, the Chinese in Korea, Ho Chi Minh after Tet and the Serbs in Bosnia.

Air power just isn't a cure-all. Or even half a cure, most of the time. It's a tool, and a blunt one at that, for limited objectives. If the air campaign fails, we'll only have ourselves to blame. And the only option left will be to send in the Marines.

Who will cheer for that? The stakes are higher than ever.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush